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Butler's Pet Hospital closing doors after 56 years

It’s going to be difficult to turn out the lights and lock the door for the final time.

It’s not going to be easy to scratch the last puppy behind the ear or reach for his stethoscope to listen to the purr of a tiny kitten on the cold, steel table.

When Dr. Mack Butler opened Butler’s Pet Hospital in the summer of 1955, Pio Nono Avenue was a two-lane strip of U.S. 41 running through south Macon.

There was no Westgate Mall across the road, just a pasture where horses grazed. Eisenhower was the president of United States, not the name on a street sign at the next corner.

Friday is going to be an emotional one for Butler, who is closing his veterinary hospital after 56 years. He gets teary-eyed just thinking about it. By the end of the day, he may be so choked up it could feel like someone has slipped a dog collar around his neck.

“I always thought we would have to carry him out of here one day,” said Gini Ellis, who has worked for Butler for 35 years. “Never in a million years did I think he would retire. He loves this place, and he loves what he does. It has been like a family.”

Butler is 84 years old -- that’s 588 in dog years -- and the oldest practicing veterinarian in Macon. When he started, there were only four other veterinarians in the city. Now there are dozens.

He has mended paws, stitched up bellies and treated distemper over a stretch of seven decades. His license does not expire until December 2012, so technically he could still be giving rabies shots for another 16 months.

But it’s quitting time.

For the past few weeks, loyal customers have dropped in to say goodbye, share their memories and express gratitude for his years of service.

One man reminded Butler of the time they met at the clinic at 2 a.m. to remove a fishing lure from his dog’s mouth. A woman came in with a long list of her pets he had cared for over the years.

More than once, the doctor was roused from his bed in the middle of a thunderstorm and headed off into the night to deliver a litter of puppies. He has endured his share of bites and scratches. It has all been worth it, though.

“The best part of it for me has always been to see the unconditional love people have for their pets, and the unconditional love the pets give back to their owners,” he said.

He treated a few famous horses in his career.

Once it was the Budweiser Clydesdales when they were in town for a performance. Another time, the Lone Ranger’s renowned horse, Silver, stuck his nose out of the trailer on a trip from Birmingham, Ala., to Macon for an exhibition and came down with a bad case of Hi Yo Sunburn.

Butler was summoned to save the day with a bottle of calamine lotion.

Becoming an animal doctor never entered his boyhood dreams while growing up on Magnolia Street, near Washington Park. He didn’t even own any pets.

He was the first in his family to go to college, and he attended Auburn University with aspirations of becoming a chemist. When World War II came along, he joined the Marines and his dreams marched off in another direction.

After the war, he married his wife, Edith, his bride of 63 years. He held a succession of jobs working in a paper mill, selling insurance and trying to peddle vacuum cleaners.

A friend finally encouraged him to apply to veterinary school at the University of Georgia. Of the 62 students in his graduating class in 1955, he is the only one still practicing.

He opened Butler Animal Hospital 56 years ago this past week in an 800-square-foot brick building at 2730 Pio Nono Ave. (He later expanded it to double in size, 40 feet wide and 40 feet deep.)

“We didn’t advertise. It was all word-of-mouth,” he said. “I just opened up and was blessed with good business. Back in those days, we saw a lot of large animals, like cows and horses.”

The first dog he treated belonged to one of his mother’s neighbors. It had been hit by a car and suffered a broken leg. There were no leash laws in Macon in the 1950s, so a lot of pets were injured on the streets. He also saw the occasional parakeet and chimpanzee.

Butler might have had reason to retire and close the business after the Mother’s Day storms in May 2008. The hospital’s roof was crushed by a falling billboard, the front windows were blown out, and the furniture and interior of the building were heavily damaged. (The detail shop next door was destroyed.)

But miraculously, none of the animals in the kennel were harmed, including Sassy, the hospital’s longtime house cat.

His staff has been as faithful as his customers. The late Johnny Williams had been an assistant to Butler since 1956. Ellis has been lifelong friends with Butler’s daughter, Nancy Cannon, and began working for the vet when she was 17 years old.

It has been a noble calling.

“The best doctor in the world is a veterinarian,” philosopher Will Rogers once said. “He can’t ask his patients what is the matter. He’s got to just know.”

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or gris@macon.com.

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